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Does Kinesiology Tape Really Work?

June 1, 2018

By Phil Page PhD, PT, ATC, CSCS, FACSM

In a survey of about 450 First Aider readers, just over half said they used kinesiology tape, primarily for pain relief, while 12% used it for performance enhancement. Kinesiology tape has been popularized by high profile athletes wearing tape on TV and in photos throughout the internet. Unfortunately, some athletes simply wear the tape just to advertise a specific brand, which ultimately adds to questions of its efficacy.

Does kinesiology tape work? YES. It has been shown effective at reducing chronic musculoskeletal pain lasting longer than 4 weeks [1] when compared to minimal interventions (ice, education, etc). As with any treatment, it doesn’t work on everyone, and is only part of the overall treatment plan. Kinesiology tape should be an adjunct to other evidence-based treatments such as therapeutic exercise.

Does kinesiology tape work the way some say it does? Probably NOT. Kinesiology tape is thought to ‘lift the skin’ by creating convolutions, which is thought to relieve pain and improve circulation. While tape relieves pain, it’s probably related to the Gate Control Theory of pain due to afferent input into the skin. Kinesiology tape convolutions do not lift the skin [2]or increase circulation [3]. In addition, convolutions do not improve outcomes. Parreira and colleagues [4]compared lower back pain patients with and without convolutions in the tape, finding no difference.

Does that surprise you, based on what you’ve been told? Wait, there’s more!

The specific direction of application (insertion to origin, or origin to insertion) does not affect muscle activation, nor do specific tensions [5, 6]. And the “fan” pattern you see on ankle sprains? No proof. One study [7]treated athletes suffering from ankle sprains with kinesiology tape or a ‘sham’ tape, finding no difference in swelling after 3 days. (Check out Vercelli et al. [8]for an explanation on the effect kinesiology tape has on ecchymosis…it’s all superficial!) Furthermore, a recent systematic review confirmed that kinesiology tape doesn’t improve sports performance in athletes [9].

Tape doesn’t change muscle activation, swelling or performance? So why should we use tape?

The bottom line is that kinesiology tape can be an effective adjunct to reduce musculoskeletal pain, providing a safer alternative for pain relief. Unfortunately, some manufacturers and gurus make claims about the benefits of kinesiology tape that turn a helpful modality into something it’s not, only adding to the confusion and doubt.

Perhaps the author of this systematic review [10]said it best, “These results suggest the precise method of kinesiology taping may not be as critical to improving outcomes as originally thought.” In other words, it’s not the tape. It’s the method.

You don’t have to be ‘certified’ to use kinesiology tape or spend hundreds of dollars learning a bunch of patterns and techniques that are not evidence-based or even useful!

Applying kinesiology tape is simple. Place the tape over one area that hurts with a little stretch (around 25%, but not more than 50% available stretch). You don’t have to cut different shapes or use awkward positions. If the tape doesn’t decrease pain by 50% after application, it may not be effective for that person. Modify or try something else. (See sidebar for some tips on kinesiology tape application).

Yes, there probably is some placebo effect with kinesiology tape, and you can take advantage of that in some athletes. If they believe it will help and reduce their pain, then give it a try. But if you tell them it probably won’t help, it probably won’t. It can make a significant difference in some athletes. But with anything, always combine taping with proven effective methods of restoring strength and function such as therapeutic exercise.

Tips for Applying Kinesiology Tape

  • • Use approximately 4 cm anchors at each end of the tape, and apply anchors without any tension
  • • Don’t touch the adhesive if possible, and avoid creases in the tape
  • • Use scissors to round the edges of tape to avoid early lifting off skin
  • • Apply directly over painful area, using multiple strips if necessary generally along the muscle fibers
  • • Use around 25% tension but no more than 50% to avoid skin irritation
  • • Gently rub the tape after application to activate the adhesive
  • • If skin becomes red and irritated, remove immediately (it may be an allergic reaction)
  • • The tape can be worn for up to 5 days, although exposure to water may reduce that time

References

1. Lim, E.C. and M.G. Tay, Kinesio taping in musculoskeletal pain and disability that lasts for more than 4 weeks: is it time to peel off the tape and throw it out with the sweat? A systematic review with meta-analysis focused on pain and also methods of tape application.Br J Sports Med, 2015. 49(24): p. 1558-66.

2. Lyman, K.J., et al., Investigating the Effectiveness of Kinesio(R) Taping Space Correction Method in Healthy Adults on Patellofemoral Joint and Subcutaneous Space.Int J Sports Phys Ther, 2017. 12(2): p. 250-257.

3. Stedge, H.L.K., Ryan M.;Docherty, Carrie L., Kinesio Taping and the Circulation and Endurance Ratio of the Gastrocnemius Muscle.Journal of Athletic Training (Allen Press), 2012. 47(6): p. 635-642.

4. Parreira Pdo, C., et al., Kinesio taping to generate skin convolutions is not better than sham taping for people with chronic non-speci fi c low back pain: a randomised trial.J Physiother, 2014. 60(2): p. 90-6.

5. Vercelli, S.S., Francesco;Foti, Calogero;Colletto, Lorenzo;Virton, Domenico;Ronconi, Gianpaolo;Ferniero, Giorgio, Immediate Effects of Kinesiotaping on Quadriceps Muscle Strength: A Single-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Crossover Trial.Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine, 2012. 22(4): p. 319-326.

6. Cai, C., et al., Facilitatory and inhibitory effects of Kinesio tape: Fact or fad?J Sci Med Sport, 2016. 19(2): p. 109-12.

7. Nunes, G.S., et al., Kinesio Taping does not decrease swelling in acute, lateral ankle sprain of athletes: a randomised trial.J Physiother, 2015. 61(1): p. 28-33.

8. Vercelli, S., et al., The effects of kinesio taping on the color intensity of superficial skin hematomas: A pilot study.Phys Ther Sport, 2017. 23: p. 156-161.

9. Reneker, J.C., et al., Effectiveness of kinesiology tape on sports performance abilities in athletes: A systematic review.Phys Ther Sport, 2018. 31: p. 83-98.

10. Nelson, N.L., Kinesio taping for chronic low back pain: A systematic review.J Bodyw Mov Ther, 2016. 20(3): p. 672-81.